Tessa pointed me at a story earlier this week of an Oxford landlord, Riasat Ali, who threatened violence against his tenant and illegally evicted him.
The council prosecuted him in the criminal courts, and despite the seriousness of this offence he was fined just £180 for the eviction, £300 for the harassment and £1,000 costs to the council.
Hardly, we thought, an adequate penalty for what must have been a traumatic experience for this tenant.
Spurred on by this hot news I had a look around the internet at other recent cases and came across the case of a Swansea Landlord Sean McManus who back in August not only illegally evicted his tenant but dumped all his belongings on his parent’s drive. Penalty? £105 fine.
Now as regular readers will know this is a personal bugbear of mine. The pointlessness of criminal prosecutions of landlords under The Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
I spent 25 years of my life dealing with idots like McManus and Ali to little effect when using the criminal courts.
The civil alternative
Civil courts? Absolutely. That’s where the deterrents lie. Penalties of £30,000 and £40,000 are not unusual.
The last one I worked on in 2014 in partnership with a local solicitor netted the tenant £51,000 in damages and whacked the landlord £53,000 in costs….now THAT is what you call a deterrent and, unlike fines, the money goes to the tenant/victim.
Civil cases take a third of the time of criminal prsecutions and the judiciary in civil courts clearly take the offences more seriously.
When parking is a more serious offence than illegal eviction …
The penalty under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 is a possible £5,000 fine and 6 months in nick.
So why do the criminal judiciary repeatedly treat vicious attacks and scandalous behaviour like a parking fine?
In fact my last traffic violation (driving my scooter in a Hackney bus lane) saw me paying £15 more than McManus.
Shelter point the finger
Shelter kicked off the rogue landlord campaign from the back of FOI requests that showed council enforcement teams had received over 11,000 complaints in a given period but had only prosecuted a few hundred.
I criticised this at the time saying the bald statistics did not acknowledge the problems in getting a case to court in terms of evidence and witnesses and also did not take into account the use of public money and officer time when you know from the get-go that the response of the criminal courts is going to be pathetic.
I have not changed my view on this one iota.
I thought it a timely point to let people know the timescales and hurdles of taking out a criminal prosecution for harassment and illegal eviction if the enforcement officer is so minded.
What a prosecution actually entails
Lets work on the basis that a case comes in on a Monday morning, you cant get the tenant back in and a decision is made to go down the criminal route.
These are the hoops a Tenancy Relations Officer has to jump through just to kick start a criminal prosecution.
- Interview the victims
- Track down the landlord and try to negotiate.
- Find accommodation for the tenants.
- Interviewing witnesses
- Type up witness statements and collate evidence
- Get landlord in for cautioned interview
- Write up transcript of interview.
- Meet with legal department to raise summonses.
- Attend court to obtain summonses
- Track down landlord and serve summonses.
Depending on the complexity of the case the above could take a few days to a few weeks.
Work on an average of being knocked out of action for the whole, initial week, not counting further case work as things develop.
A day in the life
Bear in mind also that while you are doing the above the phone doesn’t stop ringing with advice calls and there will be more illegal eviction cases coming through the door while you are dealing with Monday’s case.
In Lewisham Steve and I would often deal with 4or 5 in a week, occasionally 3 in a single day and while you are dealing with the above list, who is helping the new cases? Nobody! Because you are still dealing with Monday’s case.
And when you see at the end of it, penalties like Ali and McManus and you bear in mind that a TRO has to make a judgement call on whether or not a prosecution is in the public interest and within the resources of the council you can see why many enforcement officers look for emergency, quick-fix, alternative solutions, such as breaking the tenant back in so you can get on dealing with the next person in the queue.
The sows ear
You can also count on council press releases to turn a sows ear into a silk purse.
Swansea’s councillor David Hopkins said of McManus’s £105 fine:
“Our role is to ensure that tenants’ rights are protected in cases such as this. Hopefully this latest case will send out a message to landlords that they need to act within the law or face consequences”
While Oxford’s councillor Mike Rowley said:
“Mr Ali now has a criminal conviction on his record and that is right. There is a clear legal process for landlords who want to evict their tenants and the courts have rightly taken enforcement action against those who illegally remove tenants from their homes.”
A national disgrace
You can just see the faces of the enforcement officers who spent days, weeks and months of their time to get that kind of result AND what it might do to any future decision on punitive action.
I’m going to be bold here and state that the response of the criminal judiciary to harassment and illegal eviction is a national disgrace. Pure and simple.
The penalties of fines and prison sentences are clearly set out in legislation and yet repeatedly, for 38 years, they insist on treating threats and the sudden loss of a person’s home as a minor annoyance, worth less than a person driving a scooter in a bus lane.
Out of touch and out of order
When you look at the stated intention of the Housing Bill 2015 you can easily see that Magistrates are completely out of touch with even government attitudes to rogues landlord. The legislative trend being to clamp down on them mercilessly and increase council powers.
@Shelter, instead of berating council enforcement officers for failing to robustly poice the PRS through enforcement action how about attacking magistrates for failing to be on message?
Do that and I’ll do everything within my power to support your campaigns.